Cleveland Browns: Early Rookie Progress Reports
The Cleveland Browns incoming rookie class has now been through a rookie mini-camp and seven OTAs. That’s not enough time to figure out exactly who these players are, but it is certainly enough to figure out what they need to improve upon.
Rookies who can steal starting jobs use OTAs to get adjusted to life in the NFL and learn the basics of the system. Once training camp rolls around, the team is preparing for the regular season, and it is very tough to make up that ground.
So with just three OTAs remaining for the rookies, it’s time to put up or shut up. They can position themselves to be in the thick of a battle for a starting spot or find themselves looking for special teams reps instead.
Here are progress reports for five Browns rookies who are fighting for legitimate playing time.
So far cornerback Pierre Desir has been a great story entering the NFL. He now needs to write a new story if he wants to grab playing time on defense.
Things just got even tougher for the rookie, as the Browns signed troubled cornerback Aaron Berry on Monday. He missed all of 2013 with a knee injury but was once thought to be a starter heading into the 2012 season. Injuries and off-the-field issues have held him out of football. He will be extra competition for Desir in camp.
Needs to improve: Desir came into the NFL as a physical specimen, but he needs to continue to build on that in the weight room. He will be asked to play press coverage on the line of scrimmage and needs to be able to push back much larger receivers.
He also needs to soak up as much knowledge from Joe Haden as possible. Haden is obviously very physically gifted but lacks size. He uses positioning and timing as a weapon, and Desir could benefit from copying his technique.
Terrance West certainly looks the part of a NFL running back. He is big, strong and you can see that his first step is very quick.
Without the pads on, it is very tough to tell exactly how well he is doing, but that will come soon enough. West is competing with Ben Tate, who backed up Arian Foster in Houston for so many years. Tate knows how tough it is to win a job in camp and will do everything he can to hold off West.
Needs to improve: One way West can earn reps instantly is through blocking out of the backfield. No matter if the starting quarterback is Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel, the offense will be playing out of the shotgun quite a bit.
If West can learn to read and pick up blitzes efficiently, then he will see the field right away. If he is a liability in passing situations, then the coaches will be much more hesitant to use him in personnel packages.
The Browns focused on improving the guard position this offseason, and a big part of that should be Joel Bitonio. He is a big, mean guard who bullies defenders in the run game.
He will have every chance to win a guard spot, and so far he looks like he is blending in well. Once again, it is tough to gauge anything with the lineman because no one is wearing pads. Once the big guys start really banging in training camp, things will get interesting.
Needs to improve: It seems silly, but he needs to get used to life next to center and not on the edge. The job of a tackle is vastly different than that of a guard, especially in a zone-blocking scheme. The quicker Bitonio can pick up the nuances, the better shot he has to start.
He also needs to transfer his aggression he used in college to the next level. He cannot be intimidated or shy when it comes to NFL competition. The reason the Browns selected him in the second round is because he played angry. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.
The rookie who should have the easiest time sneaking into a starting position is cornerback Justin Gilbert. Even defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said he will have the inside shot at the job across from Joe Haden:
(Gilbert is) going to get every opportunity to win it. I’ve been really impressed with his work habits in the classroom. He’s done a really good job throwing himself into the scheme and trying to learn it. Joe Haden’s done a really nice job kind of big-brothering him and helping him along in the defense. So I’ve been really impressed by him.
The only thing that can stop Gilbert from playing across from a perennial Pro Bowl corner is himself.
Needs to improve: Gilbert has to stay healthy. He had to stay on the sidelines in a practice late last week with his leg wrapped in ice because of a minor injury. Sometimes health can be the most important part of winning a starting position.
As I said for Desir earlier, Gilbert also needs to really pick Haden’s brain. It is a huge positive that he has already started that process, but he needs to continue. Haden is a valuable wealth of information and more than willing to share with the younger players.
Are you sick of reading about Johnny Manziel yet? Well if you are, you better just get used to it because it is not going away. Manziel is not only competing for a starting job in front of Cleveland fans but also the entire world.
Manziel mania is in full effect, and so far he has done a very good job on the field. Manziel has moved to the second spot on the depth chart and seems to be making the most of his reps with the first unit as well.
Once training camp starts and Brian Hoyer is fully cleared for action, things will really heat up.
Needs to improve: Manziel needs to learn the playbook and learn it fast. If he wants to have any chance of winning the starting job out of training camp, then he needs to be reacting and not thinking. The thing he has going for him is that this is also Hoyer’s first year in the system.
The thing he has going against him is his partying, however. Even if it is not affecting what happens on the football field, and it doesn’t seem like it is, he cannot let it be a reason to hold him back.
If the front office truly wants Hoyer to win the job, then anything close to a tie will go his way. Manziel cannot afford to give them any reason to give Hoyer the nod, especially not one that can be so easily controlled. He needs to win the battle decisively.
Partying is fine, and almost every player does it. Manziel just needs to make sure the front office is not viewing it in a negative light.